Why the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup window is wide open: “They’re loaded, everywhere you look.” – The Denver Post

There is a striking similarity between this year’s Avalanche and the group that first arrived on the Front Range a quarter-century ago.

It begins where so many championship teams do, with its young stars — Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar today and the 1995-96 threesome of Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg and Adam Foote.

All entering the prime of their careers. All among the NHL’s best. And all, with the exception of Rantanen, playing under team-friendly contracts.

Financially, there was a window of opportunity that led to winning the Stanley Cup in 1996. Now, a similar window has opened for this year’s club, with MacKinnon and Makar’s relatively modest contracts among the biggest reasons.

“I think their window right now is wide open,” NHL Network analysis E.J. Hradek told The Post. “They’re loaded, everywhere you look.”

Opportunity knocks

In 1995-96, the Quebec Nordiques’ loss was Colorado’s gain.

At the time, Sakic was 26 years old and making $2.9 million as the team’s star center. Forsberg, another star center, was 22 and making $1.5 million. And Foote, the club’s best defenseman at age 24, was on a salary of $547,500.

None of them were among the top 15 paid players in the league, and only star goaltender Patrick Roy’s salary was in the top 20. Even though that was before the salary-cap era, those affordable contracts were an important factor in helping the Avs construct a championship team.

In today’s NHL, piecing together a roster is a much more complex undertaking. But thanks to the leadership of Sakic, who is beginning his eighth year as the Avs’ general manager, the Avs are a prohibitive favorite to win the Western Conference, and, right beside defending champion Tampa Bay, to hoist the Stanley Cup in July.

“It’s great, man,” MacKinnon said of a Stanley Cup-or-bust mentality. “That’s what we’re here to do. Pressure is a nice thing to have. Our expectation is to win the Cup, not just claw and scrape our way into the playoffs.”

That expectation exists outside the Avs locker room primarily because of the 25-year-old MacKinnon — an annual Hart Trophy candidate who is also a relative bargain on the Avs’ cap sheet at $6.3 million this season (92nd in the NHL). Makar, the 22-year-old reigning Calder Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year, has a cap hit of $880,833 in the final year of his entry-level contract.

MacKinnon still has three years left on a seven-year deal and counts for just 7.7% of the Avs’ approximate $79.6 million in player salaries (based on 20 players). Makar makes up just 1.1% of it. That financial flexibility provides Colorado with an extended window to add pieces around their superstar duo — with this season, in particular, offering additional financial wiggle room before left wing Gabe Landeksog, 28, and Makar negotiate new contracts.

Rantanen, 24, is under contract through 2023-24, and fellow forwards Nazem Kadri, 30; Andre Burakovsky, 25; Joonas Donskoi, 28; J.T. Compher, 25; and Valeri Nichushkin, 25, are each locked in for at least the next two years. The same goes for defensemen Erik Johnson, 31; Devon Toews, 26; Ryan Graves, 25; and Sam Girard, 22.

Colorado also has bright young defensemen Connor Timmins, 22, and Bo Byram, 19, poised to begin their full-time NHL careers on relatively inexpensive entry-level deals. Byram was the first defenseman selected in the 2019 draft (fourth overall) and is considered the NHL’s top prospect who has yet to play a game in the league.

“Such a talented team, obviously built around Nate,” former Avs forward Colin Wilson said last week on NHL Network Radio. “It’s going to be fun to watch them and the way they play for the next couple years.”

Making upgrades

Sakic and his staff, including assistant GM Chris MacFarland, recognized the opportunity to win it all this offseason and pushed chips into the middle of the table by trading for Toews and forward Brandon Saad. Both players stand as significant upgrades for a team that was already considered Cup-worthy last season, with Saad bolstering the Avs’ second line and Toews slotting in on the defensive first-pairing.

Makar will play with Toews at even strength in what looks like an ideal pairing. Timmins will replace the “unfit” Johnson on the second pairing to begin the season and Ryan Graves, who led the NHL with a plus-40 rating last season, will begin with veteran Ian Cole.

Avs coach Jared Bednar said Byram, co-captain of Canada’s silver-medalists World Junior Championship team, will get a chance to prove he can make it in the league this season.

“With Makar being the rookie of the year last year and now Bowen Byram is on his trail, and then just adding Toews, who is a good young player still in his mid-20s, plus Ryan Graves, mid-20s, had a good season for them last year — they’re loaded there,” Hradek said of Colorado’s blue line.

The Avs finished fourth in scoring last season at 3.37 goals-per-game, despite having guys like Rantanen, Landeskog, and Kadri miss significant time due to injuries. They are deeper now with Saad, plus Toews and possibly Byram pushing the pace from the back end.

“I like their lines one through four,” Hradek said of the forwards. “They have some nice depth with their group and they seem to be slotted very well. I guess the position I have any concern is goaltending, which kind of did them in last year.”

Questions in goal

Ah, yes, goaltending.

Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz will begin as a tandem for the second straight year. Grubauer is pegged to start opening night. Both he and Francouz spent significant time on the injured list last season and neither was able to play in the final games of the playoffs.

If those two aren’t healthy enough or good enough, “I get the sense they could acquire someone,” Hradek said.

For now, the Avs are looking forward to Wednesday’s opener against the St. Louis Blues at Ball Arena. They may talk internally about the window they are in, but not publicly.

“The only (window) for us is this year. That’s the only thing we can control, is the season we have in front of us, the team that we have in the locker room right now,” Compher said. “It’s not our job to focus on the future. Our job is to focus on each day, improve through training camp and be ready for that first game and get this thing rolling the right way.”

But make no mistake, there is a Cup-or-bust mentality that began before training camp.

“Our expectations are real high. We expect to take a run at this thing and we expect excellence from ourselves every day when we come to the rink,” Landeskog said. “Part of that is having that championship mentality. We’ve seen what Joe and the management have brought into this team and you can tell, it’s a championship mindset, and we’re looking to take that next step.”

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